Iran’s nuclear program, especially its recent launch of a uranium enrichment process, could trigger a massive international crisis. Tehran has hitherto ignored European, Israeli, and American pressure to desist enrichment activities and terminate its program, fanning concern that it seeks a nuclear weapon that would threaten, Israel, Europe, American interests in the region, and all of Iran’s neighbors. From the inception of its nuclear program, Iran has enjoyed Russia’s support despite foreign opposition and pressure, and Moscow’s stonewalling against foreign pressure has certainly helped Tehran defy it as well. But while Moscow supports Iran’s right to enrich uranium, it also is increasingly nervous that the IAEA might bring the issue to the UN Security Council, where it would be forced to take a stand between Washington, Europe, and Tehran.
For these reasons, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s October 11-12 trip to Tehran represented Moscow’s attempt to navigate among the shoals of this issue while still protecting its interests with Iran and maintaining close ties between the two capitals. Lavrov has clearly articulated Russia’s opposition to taking the question of Iran’s nuclearization to the Security Council (Russkii Kurier, October 12). Other Foreign Ministry officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev, have stated that Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran will continue, because that cooperation is within the bounds of IAEA rules, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the commitments outlined in other Russian agreements (RIA Novosti, October 1).
At the same time, the Russian government invariably stresses that good relations with Iran are important to its national security and to regional security in the Gulf, Caucasus, and Central Asia. According to Alexeyev, both governments support multilateral efforts on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, creating an atmosphere of confidence and cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, and “proceed from the fact that the central coordinating role should belong to the UN” (RIA Novosti, October 10). In other words, Iran is also important to Russia as it strives to engender a multipolar world to restrain U.S. policies in areas where it has especially sensitive interests, i.e. the CIS, the Persian Gulf, energy, and support for key regional actors. Therefore Russia seeks “the depoliticization of the Iranian question”(RIA Novosti, October 7). The large economic benefits of nuclear assistance to Iran’s reactor at Bushehr and the power of the Ministry for Atomic Energy in Russian politics also drive Russia’s support for Iran’s right to have a nuclear program and enrich uranium. Thus Russia’s recent announcement of the completion of the atomic power plant at Bushehr must be seen as a blow to Washington’s and Europe’s hopes to forestall Iran’s complete nuclearization.
Even though Moscow says it will not start up the plant until a treaty returning the spent fuel to Russia is signed, Reuters reports that the treaty signing has been repeatedly delayed. This has fostered speculation that “Moscow, under severe U.S. pressure to ditch the project, could shelve it until the UN nuclear agency declares Iran’s nuclear program peaceful.” At the same time, future delays are reckoned as also being entirely possible. This Russo-Iranian kabuki play over the reactor reflects the fact that American pressure has obliged Minatom and the Russian government to negotiate this treaty for recovery of the spent fuel, even as an additional protocol for the construction of a second reactor approaches finalization (RTR, Russian TV, October 11).
Lavrov’s trip also represented an attempt to demonstrate the importance Moscow attaches to Iran in general. Thus he announced preparations for a trip to Iran by President Vladimir Putin, provided that Iran makes those concessions to the IAEA and spares Moscow the dilemma of having to approve or veto sanctions (Kommersant, October 10).
Russia also seeks to make progress in these discussions on other large-scale economic programs involving oil and gas. These include a pipeline that would tie together Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India — a program that feeds into Moscow’s major North-South transport and trade corridor that ties together the entire territory from Finland to India — and the sale of Tu-204-100 planes (Kommersant, October 10). Russia’s agenda also includes negotiating agreements on collaboration between the two governments on anti-terrorist and counter-drug activities (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Network 1, October 10).
Meanwhile Iran, following North Korea’s example, has threatened that, if its rights to have a peaceful nuclear program are denied, it will abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Farsi News Agency Web Site, October 10). However, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi recently stated that if Iran’s right to enrich uranium is recognized, it will guarantee not to make atomic weapons (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 12). That hint of willingness to forswear a nuclear weapon under the existing framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty may reflect the compromise that Lavrov achieved and that will allow Putin to visit Iran in the near future. Thus Putin’s visit, which seems to indicate a prior compromise in the talks between Lavrov and Iranian officials, could become the venue for important developments in the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons.